International powers gathering in Spain on Wednesday trying to end Libya’s civil war are facing a narrowing window for mediation, with two governments at opposite ends of the country refusing to recognise each other.
Meanwhile, the conflict tearing Libya apart has become asymmetric, with Islamist-led forces now holding all three principle cities while the House of Representatives, which has fled east to Tobruk, controls Libya’s massive oil and financial wealth.
Tripoli, the capital, is in the hands of Libya Dawn, an Islamist-Misrata coalition which captured it from pro-government militias in August and reconvened the former Islamist-dominated General National Congress, rival to the House of Representatives. Four hundred miles east, Benghazi, Libya’s second city, is in the hands of Islamists led by Ansar al-Sharia, which in June declared the city an Islamic emirate.
Misrata, the third city, is also held by Libya Dawn, with its powerful militias providing much of Dawn’s fighting strength.
The newly elected parliament, based in Tobruk, lacks the army units to recapture the cities, but it is not without power.
Libya’s abundant oil and gas fields, almost its only source of revenue, remain in government hands. So too is a massive $110 billion in foreign reserves, after the international community granted sole recognition to parliament.
This uneven balance has left the rival governments feeling they are in a commanding position, with neither willing to give ground, leaving mediators with few options.
And the fighting is worsening. This week saw 19 killed as Ansar al-Sharia, the most powerful Islamist militia in Benghazi, launched a new attempt to storm Benina airport, held by government forces.
West of Tripoli, more than 100 have died in a week of sustained shelling and rocket fire from Libya Dawn units against pro-government tribal forces from the Warshefana region.
While the UN is unclear how to end the war, it is in agreement that this fighting is causing an ever worsening humanitarian crisis, reporting that 250,000 of Libya’s six million people are now displaced.
“Tens of thousands of civilians are now known to have fled their homes; many have also lost their lives as a result of the shelling including women and children,” the UN’s new special representative for Libya Bernardino Leon said this week. “We also have credible reports of severe shortages of medical supplies.”
Five months of war
Libya has been at war since May, when former general Khalifa Hiftar launched attacks on Islamist militias that he labelled as “terrorists” in Benghazi, winning the support of Libya’s small army and air force.
In July, Tripoli was engulfed in fighting after elections in June saw steep losses to Islamist parties for the 200-seat national parliament. Libya Dawn was formed, declaring the new parliament invalid because it moved its base from Benghazi to Tobruk. A five week battle for Tripoli airport, held by pro-government Zintani militias, ended in victory for Libya Dawn, but the airport itself is now in ruins.
With the fighting has come dislocation. Libya’s already troubled economy, which had suffered from militia violence ever since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has all but disintegrated.
Foreign embassies and thousands of foreign workers have fled the capital and international airlines have abandoned the airports, almost emptying them of traffic.
The government, now installed in the eastern city of Bayda, declared it has lost control of its ministries, stormed by militia units, leaving the country without effective government.
Most schools are shut. Tripoli and several other towns are suffering cuts to water, power and petrol, and hospitals are running short of supplies. Such has been the breakdown of official functions that the medical authorities are unable to say even how many have been killed in the violence.
Human Rights Watch has reported that since the Libya Dawn takeover of Tripoli, opposition supporters have suffered arrests and house burnings, with a spate of attacks on journalists and TV stations.
Two diplomatic mediation efforts have already been launched, both coming to nothing. Britain’s Libya envoy, Jonathan Powell, and UN envoy Leon each toured Tobruk, Misrata and Tripoli searching for common ground, and found precious little.
The sticking point for talks is the refusal of either side to recognise the other. Parliament insists it is the only legitimate governing authority, and that the best place for Libya Dawn and other Islamist formations is parliament’s own chamber.
Libya Dawn insists parliament is illegitimate, and has reconvened the former Islamist-dominated General National Congress, dissolved in July, appointing a new government under designated prime minister Omar Al Hasi, but failing to persuade outside powers to recognise it.
Both sides have accused the other of help from outside. Libya Dawn joined with US sources in blaming the United Arab Emirates and Egypt for a series of air strikes against Dawn units in Tripoli last month, while the government accused Sudan and Qatar of flying-in weapons for the Islamists.
Neither the British nor the UN have embraced the idea of power-sharing, each delegation telling Libya Dawn that they will not recognize a formal division of power within the country.
Diplomats fear that any such power-sharing deal, in which parliament is seen as only one actor, will encourage other groups and tribes to demand their own special deal, leading to the collapse of parliament itself and the fragmentation of Libya into militia fiefdoms.
Parliament has taken an increasingly hard line with Libya Dawn, with its speaker, Aguila Salah Issa, a former judge, joining prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni and the chief of staff in a high profile visit to the UAE last week. Officially, parliament says the visit was to promote neighbourly relations, but Libya Dawn suspect it is tied to requests for military support.
Libya Dawn’s decision to go ahead and form its own government has meanwhile made it harder for parliament to negotiate. Indeed, parliament has refused to meet with the former national congress, insisting congress is a defunct body.
Changing power dynamics
An added complication for mediation is locating where the power lies now in Tripoli. While Tobruk’s parliament has a structure, with a three-man presidency, rebel forces in the capital are split, with Libya Dawn militia leaders forming one group, the re-engaged congress another, and a third body, the Shura Council, formed from a mixture of politicians and militia groups.
There is tension too between Tripoli’s rebels and the Islamists in Benghazi. Here, Ansar al-Sharia has formed a shura council which is opposed by two other Islamist militias, February 17 and Libya Shield, who are close to the Muslim Brotherhood, both of them yet to ally with Libya Dawn.
Libya Dawn is itself changing, with the inclusion of tribal militias from coastal towns of western Libya, pitted against tribes from the interior in a centuries-old rift. Calls by international envoys for all these groups to send elected representatives to argue their case in parliament have been ignored.
“We are probably past the stage for talking, now it is the stage of the fighting,” said one Libyan government official after talks with the UN delegation.
Amid the chaos, several strategic imperatives are becoming clear. The government controls Libya’s oil fields, home to the largest reserves in Africa, and in the west, Libya Dawn is pushing along the coast trying to secure the oil ports.
In Benghazi, Ansar al-Sharia’s ever more desperate push for the airport masks its growing need for ammunition and supplies, with government forces now ringing the city. Attempts by Misrata to send ammunition saw at least one ship sunk by air strikes, and others were bombed in the port of nearby Derna, also held by Islamists. Control of the airport will allow Ansar al-Sharia to fly in its ammunition.
While the government lacks the combat power to recapture the cities, relying on a handful of regular army brigades and tribal militias, its control of the oil gives a potentially winning card. In a long war, that oil will provide revenues to pay for military aid.
The government has moved aggressively to cut potential sources of finance for the Islamists. The bulk of Libya’s foreign reserves are abroad, and after the central bank governor announced he was independent of the government, he was promptly sacked by parliament.
There is resignation among foreign officials gathering in Spain that any mediation may need to wait until events on the battlefield produce a clear winner.
If Libya Dawn can seize the western oil ports of Zawiya and Metallita, it can cut a third of Libya’s oil exports, using this as leverage in any political deal with the government. Likewise, if Ansar al-Sharia can seize Benina, it will have its means of supply secure.
A threatened government offensive against Benghazi would be equally dramatic. Last week, the mixture of regular army and nationalist militia units around the city were joined by 1,000 troops from ethnic Tobu units who normally guard southern oil fields. An attack, if it succeeds, will give the government control of eastern Libya, home to two thirds of oil production, and remove any threat from Islamist forces to Tobruk.
Hanging over the heads of mediators is the spectre of foreign military intervention. France’s defence minister Jean-Yves le Drian has called for military action, saying the Islamists are protecting sizable jihadist and al-Qaeda units, and the UAE, Egypt and Algeria have voiced similar fears.
Islamist forces can likewise count on support, so far political, from Qatar, Sudan and Turkey. The risk is that, while both sides push for a military rather than political solution, the fighting draws these outside powers into the ring, turning Libya’s civil war into a regional conflict which the Libyans themselves lack the power to stop, even if they wanted to.
Middle East Eye